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A Knight in Harmon Hall

A Knight Proves to Be a True Champion

By Ian McKellen
Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington, D.C.
Thursday, October 29, 2009 (front row, center stalls)

Sir Ian McKellen’s first star turn on stage was as Justice Shallow in a Cambridge University production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2. He was costumed, he told the audience in filled-to-capacity Harmon Hall, with a long beard and pointy hat. Then he paused, his blue-as-the-Mediterranean eyes twinkling, and let the irony set in, engendering the first of many laughs in his one-man show.

No doubt that when Ian McKellen passes on, the headlines to his obituary will reference Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, especially in this country. But to legions of Shakespeare fans, McKellen is one of his generation’s greatest Shakespearean actors, sharing the pinnacle with Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi. “Good company” he said of his early acting days with Jacobi and others, and then came that irrepressible twinkle of his eyes again. Ah, yes, aside from his playing iconic roles from Macbeth to Magneto, McKellen has been a tireless campaigner for gay rights since he came out 20 years ago.

His one-man show delved into both aspects of his famous life. McKellen told the audience he had just put together the show for this particular evening (it came a few days after the Shakespeare Theatre Company bestowed its Will Award upon him), though, at the least, it was an evolution of his previous one-man shows, Acting Shakespeare and A Knight Out.

He opened by counting off all of Shakespeare’s plays with the audience’s input, pausing on Romeo, Much Ado, Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, and Coriolanus to recount his own experiences with those parts. There came a personal connection for me. My dad and I saw him as Coriolanus at the National Theater, and we were part of an on-stage audience playing the rabble, one of the highlights of our theater experiences. To this day my dad brags that he “acted with Ian McKellen in Coriolanus.” McKellen, however, described that audience-on-stage production as the worst experience of his life.

The second phase of the performance was a display of his line-speaking virtuosity. This is a man whom my parents once saw create verse from reading a phone book. At Harmon Hall, he recited an entry from Roget’s Thesaurus, did nursery rhymes, and read the 12 categories of wind as listed by the Royal Navy. He talked of his childhood in the North Country, growing up in Manchester the same time the Beatles were growing up in Liverpool. He recited Shakespeare’s Sonnet 56 as if he were on the phone with the lover who had just jilted him, drawing real confusion and hurt from the 400-year-old iambic pentameter lines. This then segued into the lyrics of “Help!” At first, the audience laughed, but as he portrayed the edge-of-abyss desperation of the song’s verses and chorus through his own Shakespearean fleshing of the language, the laughter turned to rapture.

An extensive passage of Kit Marlowe’s play Edward II, an openly gay portrayal of the 13th century monarch written around 1590—a portrayal which, starring McKellen, became a groundbreaking gay portrayal for BBC TV in 1970—shifted the evening’s focus to gay rights. This is a man who has marched in London, spoken at a million-in-attendance gay rally in D.C., and personally pushed Nelson Mandela to include civil rights for gays in South Africa’s new constitution, which he called “the proudest moment of my life.” The night’s signature moment was Shakespeare’s penned speech of Sir Thomas More quelling a rioting crowd that seeks to expel “foreigners.” In the speech, McKellen as Shakespeare’s More argued that tolerating otherness is not only a moral standard for Christians but a requirement for society’s progress.

For his encore, McKellen invited “anybody who wants to act with me” onto the stage. He had dozens of takers, whom he coached privately in a huddle so the audience wouldn’t know what was coming. He then launched into his tale of the actor playing Henry V reading the list of famous French dead but, upon receiving the wrong paper from the stagehand, resorts to Francophilian pronunciations of wines and sparkling water. As part of the skit, his fellow actors died on cue, perfectly and hilariously, to create a stage littered with bodies, and when it was done, McKellen shared a bow with his new company. The audience stood in appreciation, not only for McKellen but, genuinely, for the company, too.

That’s what we took away most from the knight in Harmon Hall: he’s a great actor, he’s a famous gay man, but more than any of that, he’s a kindred spirit and our kind companion.

Eric Minton
October 31, 2009

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